Cantor Jonathan Grant of Temple Bat Yahm was walking out of a seminar of the American Cantors Convention in Memphis during late June when he heard his friend, Cantor Rosyln Barak, shout from a distance away.
“Jonathan!” she yelled. “How come you’re not coming to the Vatican?”
Grant was puzzled. “What are you talking about?” he asked.
He then was reminded of an e-mail that he received before the convention, looking for a group of cantors to sing at the Vatican. He had deleted the e-mail almost immediately, and by this time, he thought that the group was already chosen. Barak then sat him down and gave him the background of the event, along with the dates – November 14 to 18.
“I need you to come do this,” she said.
After clearing it with the temple, Grant, who has been Bat Yahm’s cantor since 1994, became one of 20 cantors in the United States who will go to Rome and perform at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, just outside of Vatican City. Their audience will include Vatican leaders, with a scheduled appearance by Pope Benedict XVI.
This concert, which is a part of the Second Conference on Catholic-Jewish Relations, is also the centerpiece of an upcoming documentary film, To God’s Ears, which details the changing world of Catholic-Jewish relations over the past 40 years, the activists involved in maintaining relationships between the communities, and the ability to use music to bring people together.
“What the documentary is asking is, ‘Can this become a tool to foster tolerance and understanding? Can it be an educational tool for tolerance?’” Grant said.
The idea for this program was inspired in part by the life of Pope John Paul II, who as a boy in Poland embraced Jewish culture and went into hiding to avoid joining the Nazi Occupational Forces. During his youth there, he went to listen to cantors in synagogues and invited his Jewish friends to his Catholic church. When a woman tried to denounce their presence, he asked her, “But aren’t all children of God welcome in His house?” With that, the boys were allowed to stay.
Pope John Paul II would later become a revolutionary for Catholic-Jewish relations during his time as pope, with the ADL saying, “More change for the better took place in his 27-year Papacy than in nearly 2,000 years.” It was Pope John Paul II who began relations with Israel, apologized for the Inquisition of Spain and the ignorance of the Church regarding the Holocaust, and declared anti-Semitism a sin.
Gunther Lawrence, a member of the Community Synagogue in Port Washington, Long Island, New York, and activist for Catholic-Jewish relations for over 40 years, worked with Pope John Paul II in order to foster good will between the two religions.
According to Grant, Lawrence’s activism was the key for the cantors to not only be able to perform for Vatican leaders, but also have an audience with the Pope the following day. In addition, the cantors and members of the Vatican will participate in seminars regarding important issues to both faiths, such as the state of Israel, intermarriage, and relations with the Muslim world.
Grant said that the quest for peace with Islam is particularly important, as the question of tolerance between the faiths is one that needs to be answered in the modern world.
“People want peace; people want prosperity,” Grant said. “[But] tolerance can be a hard sell when the other side isn’t playing.” He added that the conference in Rome was a joint outreach by both sides, which makes a huge difference to nurturing relationships.
“I’m hoping they’re just as excited as we are. I believe they are,” he said. “And that’s not what we have with other places.”
Grant said that part of the conference is to make sure that the line of communication that Pope John Paul II created with Jewish leaders would remain open with Pope Benedict XVI and beyond, and that they would continue to explore and share each other’s histories and traditions.
This includes the selections chosen for the cantorial concert, which Grant said includes traditional Hebrew prayers and psalms in the original Hebrew with melodies by Jewish composers.
Although there are many great Jewish stories that have been composed by traditional classical composers, such as “Judas Maccabaeus” by Handel, the choice was instead to focus on the prayers that are normally used.
“It shows what we do as cantors, how we interpret our prayers and liturgy, how we elucidate our sacred text and to give examples of that to them,” Grant said. Some of the prayers that they will be doing include “Lecha Dodi,” “Shalom Alechem,” and “V’ahavta.”
In addition to those prayers, they will also be focusing on psalms such as Psalm 116, composed by Grant’s friend Erik Contzius, where they will be alternating the Hebrew with the Latin translation to share how both faiths interpret the words.
And instead of being a concert filled with solos, the songs will be done in a choral style, with five sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. Each cantor will have a chance to feature his or her voice, although they are not stand-alone solos.
While Grant says that he is not approaching this conference with a Catholic-Jewish agenda, he feels that it is an honor to represent the Jewish people and the music that represents them to the Vatican.
“Given my background as a cantor, it’s the best way I know to bridge differences between people,” Grant said. “Music is the universal force between people. Every culture has music. Even animals have music. It reaches inside to the soul unlike anything else.”